Another Ambon: Part III

Hengky’s family are Seventh Day Adventists, or just “Adven,” as they called themselves. Morning, evening, and every meal were accompanied by long, elaborate prayers, with Hengky’s mother in law usually leading the service. Like American Adventists, they did not smoke or drink—not even coffee or tea, though hot chocolate was acceptable. Unlike most American Adventists, though, they ate meat, something unavoidable in Indonesia. They went to prayer meetings at least twice a week, moving from house to house among their community. The pastor was a tall, handsome man in his forties. His wife, when she learned I studied archaeology, said, “all you need to know about the world is in this book,” pointing to her bible.

I was a bit surprised to see this minor American denomination had such a following in Ambon; they were also building a great church, with a forty-foot high ceiling. The church was half-finished, but the lighting and sound system were in place. Scaffolding filled the back of the church, but the front was empty, white concrete, except for a podium, lectern, and microphone.

A young woman preacher spoke in rapid-fire Maluku dialect; her voice echoed off the hard walls. The preacher asked the young men in the congregation, including myself, to sing a hymn. We got up on the podium, and I quietly mouthed the words from the hymnal, understanding about half of them. The hymns were Indonesian and Maluku translations of American spiritual songs—I recognized some of the melodies. In fact, the hymnal usually had the songs in two languages, English and colloquial Indonesian, right next to each other. The melodies seemed utterly alien in this context, as did the cavernous interior of the church.

I’ve come to expect that a religion, descending on an indigenous culture and trying to proselytize to an unfamiliar people, will adapt itself at least a bit to their tastes and history. For example, the Catholic and Protestant missionaries, despite inflicting the appallingly frumpy “Mother Hubbard” dress upon the women of Polynesia, either could not prohibit, or had the good sense to accept, a native interpretation of their church music, with the new Christian sentiments expressed in much older harmonies, and often just thinly veneered over a much older story. Why should things be different here in Ambon? Was the foreignness of the Adventist hymns an attraction to new converts? Did it seem a welcome change from traditional sounds? By the time the Adventists got to Ambon, Catholic and Protestant missionaries had been at work on the island for centuries. I’m not sure whether the Catholics adapted their music to Ambonese tastes. In any case, it isn’t only the Adventists who seem to have transplanted a whole cultural complex to Ambon along with their religion—the two largest mosques in Ambon, and much of the Muslim quarter’s public architecture, could have been airlifted in from Arabia, and doesn’t make any concessions to a local tradition. For that matter, not much in Ambon does. The Ambonese are relatively comfortable with foreign influence. Oddly enough, something that happened in Ambon, the Amboyna Incident, also had outsize influence on European culture very early, and that bit of history shows how early the island had become a European outpost. Wallace was a bit incredulous at the Ambonese adaptation of European formal dress in the nineteenth century, and he noted that although the Portuguese had only a tenuous control of Ambon for a few decades before the Dutch got there, some Portuguese words had survived in the local dialect into the nineteenth century. The whole Maluku region has been subject to so many unusual foreign influences for so long, there may be no “indigenous” style of anything left there.

So, in this strange foreign church, a piece of Iowa or Nebraska with Indonesian subtitles, I sat next to Hengky’s uncle Jemmy, who worked as a hairdresser and lived in a town a bit to the west of Ambon. He had arranged for a special surprise after the service—durian.

The durian has inspired much love, and the same amount of hatred, from Europeans who visited Indonesia in the past. The locals are generally not so quick to hate it, but many are perfectly content to avoid it, and the distinctive smell has caused laws to be enacted prohibiting the transport of durian inside airplanes’ passenger cabins, and on public transit in some cities.

Wallace was quite taken with durian, and wrote a long tribute to it in his Malay Archipelago, which is worth quoting at length.

A rich custard highly flavoured with almonds gives the best general idea of it, but there are occasional wafts of flavour that call to mind cream-cheese, onion-sauce, sherry-wine, and other incongruous dishes. Then there is a rich glutinous smoothness in the pulp which nothing else possesses, but which adds to its delicacy. It is neither acid nor sweet nor juicy; yet it wants neither of these qualities, for it is in itself perfect. It produces no nausea or other bad effect, and the more you eat of it the less you feel inclined to stop. In fact, to eat Durians is a new sensation worth a voyage to the East to experience.

The smell of the ripe fruit is certainly at first disagreeable, though less so when it has newly fallen from the tree; for the moment it is ripe it falls of itself, and the only way to eat Durians in perfection is to get them as they fall. It would perhaps not be correct to say that the Durian is the best of all fruits, because it cannot supply the place of subacid juicy fruits such as the orange, grape, mango, and mangosteen, whose refreshing and cooling qualities are so grateful; but as producing a food of the most exquisite flavour it is unsurpassed. If I had to fix on two only as representing the perfection of the two classes, I should certainly choose the Durian and the Orange as the king and queen of fruits.

The Durian is however (in another way) dangerous. As a tree ripens the fruit falls daily and almost hourly, and accidents not unfrequently happen to persons walking or working under them. When a Durian strikes a man in its fall it produces a fearful wound, the strong spines tearing open the flesh, while the blow itself is very heavy; but from this very circumstance death rarely ensues, the copious effusion of blood preventing the inflammation which might otherwise take place. A Dyak chief informed me that he had been struck down by a Durian falling on his head, which he thought would certainly have caused his death, yet he recovered in a very short time.

Poets and moralists, judging from our English trees and fruits, have thought that there existed an inverse proportion between the size of the one and the other, so that their fall should be harmless to man. Two of the most formidable fruits known, however, the Brazil Nut (Bertholletia) and the Durian, grow on lofty trees, from which they both fall as soon as they are ripe, and often wound or kill those who seek to obtain them. From this we may learn two things:–first, not to draw conclusions from a very partial view of Nature; and secondly, that trees and fruits and all the varied productions of the animal and vegetable kingdoms, have not been created solely for the use and convenience of man.

Others have been less complementary; one of my favorite authors, Anthony Burgess, who spent some time in the region, incorporated this description into his trilogy The Long Day Wanes:

Over all presided the fetid, exciting reek of durian, for this was the season of durians. Nabby Adams had once been to a durian party. It was like, he thought, eating a sweet raspberry blancmange in the lavatory.

I too was going to a durian party. I hopped on Hengky’s motor and we sped east, past Ambon’s surprisingly large and modern looking mall on the outskirts of the city. We were heading to Jemmy’s barber shop, where he would meet us with the durians. When we got to the barber shop, Jemmy wasn’t there, so we had some nasi kuning to prepare our stomachs, and watched The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air on satellite TV, in English with Indonesian subtitles.

I was pleased to have something in English to listen to, but it was more interesting to see how the subtitles had been translated: a lot of the jokes couldn’t be translated directly, because they depended on familiarity with American pop culture. A whole dialogue that compared Uncle Phil to Ward Cleaver had to be altered in the subtitles. Phil shouting “Do I look like a white guy named Ward?!” just wouldn’t make sense to someone who’d never seen Leave it to Beaver, so it was translated “Do I look like I’m stupid?!” Imagine all the subtle, culturally specific allusions that don’t survive in subtitles.

After the show had ended, and we’d moved on to Al Jazeera English, Jemmy arrived with three durians. We had buffered our stomachs with the rice, which was important. One of the remarkable things about Indonesian food is how conditional much of it is. That doesn’t make much sense, I know. What I mean is, according to widely accepted folk knowledge, there are certain times when you can’t eat durian. If you eat it on an empty stomach, you’ll get heartburn. If you eat it with alcohol, you might have a heart attack. Eating durian while pregnant is bad for the fetus. Durian is one of the most conditional foods, but not the only one. A particular type of bean makes delicious crackers when mashed and fried, but eating too many of these crackers will give you high blood pressure. Another kind of bean is also delicious, but will cause your urine to smell very strange. Sago starch is toxic before it is washed, but after being washed becomes edible, and actually quite boring. Indonesian food often comes with a caveat or two. So it is with durian. Some people are convinced that durian ferments slightly during ripening, and contains a kind of alcohol. Everyone seems to agree that it produces a certain mild intoxication.

There must certainly be an effect from eating a lot of durian, because Jemmy insisted that I eat a whole one to get the full experience. He gave the biggest durian to me. “If you don’t eat this whole durian, I’ll hit you,” he said as he broke open the duri, the spikes on the outside, and offered me a section of strange whitish flesh.

The scent of this durian was not as foul as some reports had led me to expect, but it was uncannily similar to rotting onions. I imagine that an accident in a chemical plant might smell similar to a durian, if the right things were mixed together. Aromatic is the word, like aromatic hydrocarbons. The really odd thing about the “smell” is that one can also almost taste it while eating the durian—the fumes seem to rise up above the palate and into the sinuses whether you want them to or not. The flesh itself is not very substantial—it surrounds a huge seed, and is wrapped in a thick, spiky husk—and it is definitely an odd contrast to the smell. If you could completely turn off your olfactory senses, it would taste very mild, quite sweet, not tart at all. The texture is soft, something like a peach that has come dangerously close to being rotten.

My senses disagreed with each other about how I should treat this food. My nose actually wasn’t too horrified, but it did urge caution—these vapors wouldn’t be out of place in a chemical weapons test. There was something volatile about durian—it demanded to be eaten slowly and carefully. Eating the whole durian, especially in one sitting, might exceed my willpower. My tongue thought it was perfectly fine, but hardly worth calling raja buah (the king of fruits). My eyes were ambivalent about the utter strangeness of the whole thing—the evil looking spikes on the outside, and the strange geometry of the husk, were very nice, but the sections of flesh inside looked a bit too similar to internal organs.

On the whole, I had to conclude that I wasn’t totally repelled by durian, but I wouldn’t go out of my way to eat it again, either. This is odd, because everyone else I’ve talked to either hates it immensely or gets a far-off, amorous look in their eyes when durian is mentioned. Jemmy’s half-joking threats didn’t motivate me to eat the whole durian, but he insisted that I take the durian back to Hengky’s house and finish it before I went to bed.

The next day, I was on a plane to Yogyakarta. Hengky and his family had been wonderful hosts. Hengky gave me his copy of the New Testament, in English on one side, Indonesian on the other. I offered them my water filter as a parting gift, but they wouldn’t hear of it. I did manage to give Hengky my mask and snorkel, since I figured he’d use it on his fishing boat. Even by Indonesian standards of hospitality, they were incredibly gracious, and I hope I can visit them again soon. Now it was on to a new city, a new island, and a new province—practically a new country. That will be the subject of the next post.

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